Inheriting an estate in South Carolina can be simplified by avoiding the probate process. While probate serves an important legal function, it can also create unnecessary costs and delays for beneficiaries. Fortunately, South Carolina law provides several methods to bypass probate and ensure your assets pass directly to your chosen heirs. Partner with an experienced financial advisor who can help you put the right probate avoidance vehicles in place to protect your legacy.
South Carolina Estate Plan Basics
South Carolina inheritance law does not impose estate taxes or inheritance taxes at the state level. However, estates valued above $12.92 million for individuals or $25.84 million for couples may owe federal estate taxes in 2023. This goes up to $13.61 million for individuals and $27.22 million for couples in 2024. Any estate going through probate will also incur court fees, legal fees, appraisal costs and other administrative expenses.
South Carolina follows the Uniform Probate Code, a standardized set of probate procedures adhered to by many states. The probate process involves validating the will, appointing an executor, inventorying assets, paying debts and taxes, and finally distributing the remaining assets to beneficiaries.
In South Carolina, full probate is generally required for estates exceeding $25,000. Less valuable estates may qualify for a simplified small estate probate process that is faster and costs less.
Why Avoid Probate?
Probate performs the important task of settling the estate according to the decedent’s wishes, but it can also result in lengthy delays and high costs for beneficiaries. The average probate process takes from nine to 16 months in South Carolina, sometimes longer if disputes arise. Court fees, legal fees, appraisals and other costs can tally into the thousands of dollars, reducing the inheritance.
Probate also is a public process. Court documents with details of the estate will be available for everyone to see. That can be an issue for someone who prefers to keep their personal financial affairs private.
While South Carolina generally follows the Uniform Probate Code, it has some unique probate laws. One is the “year’s support” rule allowing spouses and minor children to claim funds for their support during probate. This can further diminish the estate. For these reasons, it often makes sense to avoid probate in South Carolina if possible.
Ways to Avoid South Carolina Probate
Estate planners can use a number of different tools to avoid having to go through the probate process in South Carolina. They include:
- Living trusts. Creating a revocable living trust is one of the most comprehensive ways to avoid probate in South Carolina. You transfer ownership of assets to the trust while still living. Upon your death, the trustee distributes the assets directly to beneficiaries according to the trust terms, bypassing probate. The costs include legal fees to draft the trust.
- Transfer-on-death deeds. A transfer-on-death deed allows real estate to pass directly to beneficiaries, avoiding probate. The property owner records a transfer-on-death deed naming the beneficiary. At death, the beneficiary files the deed to claim ownership. Costs are minimal.
- Joint ownership. Jointly held property with rights of survivorship automatically passes to the surviving owner at death, skipping probate. This works for real estate, vehicles, bank accounts and investments. No additional legal costs are involved.
- Payable-on-death designations. Naming payable-on-death beneficiaries on bank accounts and other financial assets transfers them directly to heirs upon death. Using payable-on-death designations on accounts avoid probate with no extra costs.
While these can be useful for estate planning, there is more to an effective estate plan. For instance, you still need a will for certain purposes even if using probate avoidance tools.
Probate Avoidance in Action
Here’s an example of how a hypothetical South Carolina resident could use various tools to avoid probate:
- Establish a living trust, naming their spouse as trustee and son or daughter as successor trustee. They would then transfer their home, vehicles, investments and bank accounts into the trust.
- For rental property they own, they record a transfer-on-death deed naming a son or daughter as the beneficiary.
- They add their spouse as a joint owner to their checking account. They also list a son or daughter as the payable-on-death beneficiary on an individual retirement account (IRA).
- Their will is drafted to any remaining assets into the living trust. In the will, they name guardians for any minor children.
With this approach, most of their estate will avoid probate and pass directly to their spouses and children. Their wishes will be carried out quickly and privately.
Limits and Costs of Probate Avoidance
While these tools can avoid probate, there are some limitations. You may still need probate for assets that weren’t transferred prior to death. And you will still need a will to name an executor, guardians for minor children, and handle any assets not placed into a trust.
Setting up a living trust or retitling property incurs initial costs for legal fees or recording fees. There can also be risks, like accidentally disinheriting heirs if transfers aren’t done correctly.
With proper planning, it’s possible for many people to avoid the time and expense of probate in South Carolina. Living trusts, beneficiary deeds, joint accounts and payable-on-death designations allow assets to pass privately and immediately to your chosen heirs.
Estate Planning Tips
- A financial advisor who specializes in estate planning can look at your entire financial picture and recommend probate avoidance tools tailored to your needs and goals. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- SmartAsset’s property tax calculator lets you see what your property tax bill is likely to be and how it compares to property tax bills elsewhere.
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